Last week, British academic and noted Sudan expert Alex de Waal wrote an important piece lamenting the current state of activism, specifically related to the African continent. De Waal's writing was inundated with his frustrations, which for anyone following humanitarianism over the past decade knows are nothing new. De Waal penned clear and concise recommendations for changing modern activism, but these will fall on deaf ears. The true targets will ignore De Waal and dismiss him as a skeptic. Activism has become very powerful in terms of shaping policy in certain parts of the world. Because of this, the activist community has a responsibility to evaluate the consequences of everything they do. However, because of the nature of advocacy and its current focus on engaging vast swaths of young society, accountability will not be a serious concern for the activist community anytime soon.
In the age of social media and easily accessible information, a new kind of humanitarianism has developed. Taking part in a human rights campaign has become quite easy. Beyond the ease of online donations to charities and causes, raising awareness is never more than a simple click away. This trend is known as "Slacktivism." Author and researcher Lilie Chouliaraki has dubbed this age of activism "Post-humanitarianism." Its primary purpose is to engage others in activism and is not focused on the cause or issues itself: In short, it's focused on us rather than someone else. If this type of strategy is successful as measured by the amount of awareness that is raised or the donations collected, than what is the problem?
Image credit: Ssgt. Joycelyn A. Guthrie
Activism is not intrinsically wrong or negative, but neither has it always been positive. Conflicts and causes in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the two Sudans have in a way become part of popular culture, at least among the morally conscious. Like any conflict or global flashpoint, these issues are inherently complex. Ignoring these complexities in order to boil down issues to simple narratives will almost certainly lead to unintended consequences.
These simplifications also reinforce stereotypes and take agency away from those involved. Local conflicts over land and ideology fostered by the overall decay of the Congolese state can easily explain ongoing violence in Eastern Congo. Security sector reform and local reconciliation among communities doesn't exactly resonate with a wide audience. The idea that the technology we use every day that we hold in our hand is driving horrible conflict in Africa certainly does, though. Therefore it's the narrative we get whether or not it's really true. It is almost as if the Congolese are not capable of causing or solving their conflict; instead, we must somehow have an involvement and a solution that each one of us can individually contribute to reaching.
Image Credit: State Department
In the same vein, it seems that many people do not understand that armed groups, governments, and even the victims themselves in humanitarian crisis and conflict zones have agency of their own. They are aware of activism and they can leverage physical supplies or awareness in these environments. Whether it's the high profile gained by rape in the DRC, or the supposed meeting between government troops and rebels in Sierra Leone about the media attention garnered from amputations, we have to understand that these are not passive, vacant beings. Actors in these areas are capable of taking advantage of activists' efforts for their own means, in many cases prolonging conflicts or contributing to new ones.
Highlighting past failures is not meant to degrade the entire activist community, but it is instead meant to prove how high the stakes are when advocating. Humanitarianism and aid do have their place, but it must know its limitations and be aware of the power it holds in making policy which affects real people. The current trajectory of these types of movements suggests that more of these issues will continue to come up.